School Choice Program Looms Large In Nauset HS Project Debate

By: Ed Maroney

Nauset Regional High School.  FILE PHOTO

ORLEANS The select board and finance committee were set to meet with members of the Nauset Regional School Committee last night (Feb. 3) about the high school building project. In just under two months, voters in the four member towns will be asked in a district-wide election to approve the $132 million effort, for which $36 million in state reimbursement is anticipated.

In the weeks before the March 30 election, Nauset will conduct information meetings via Zoom at 6:30 p.m. every Wednesday night, including project history (Feb. 3), other options (Feb. 10), Education 2050 (Feb. 17 and 24), and school choice (March 3); all will be available for later viewing on cable Channel 22. The Zoom link is zoom.us/j/91924602088/.

The renovation and construction project had its genesis almost a decade ago when Nauset representatives met with leaders in Brewster, Eastham, Orleans, and Wellfleet to review concerns about the aging school in Eastham, now almost a half century old. A consensus emerged to pursue partial state funding through a building project rather than a capital upgrade that would be borne solely by the towns.

Following its review, the Massachusetts School Building Authority said the remade campus should be designed for an enrollment of 900. That appeared to lock in a longstanding Nauset policy to augment the local student body with school choice pupils from other systems. In 2020, according to figures reported by the Brewster Finance Committee, the four Nauset towns provided 67 percent (616 students) of the high school’s enrollment, with 9 percent (86) tuitioned in from Truro and Provincetown and 24 percent (219) through school choice.

The rationale for and consequences of participating in school choice to that extent have taken center stage in discussions of the school project, much to the dismay of supporters concerned about the school’s makeshift classrooms cobbled out of hallways, antiquated and hard-to-access locker rooms, and outdated HVAC systems. They’re also upset that the carefully thought-out education plan for what the school needs to be in the next half century is sinking out of sight.

But for others, the reach for the school of the future is a step too far, especially because it will require the member towns to pay (minus any state subsidy) for a revitalized campus that will serve not only their children but hundreds of students from communities that will make no contribution to retiring that debt. (Districts whose students elect instead to attend Nauset contribute about $5,000 per capita each year to the receiving school).

From 1996 through 2003, more students elected to leave the Nauset Regional Schools each year via school choice than were attracted to the system. In 2004, a greater number entered rather than left, a trend that’s continued to this day. The influx peaked in 2018 at 348.9 pupil entering versus just 37.7 departing.

For 2020, Nauset’s numbers were 290.9 in and 40.4 out. That compares with Monomoy’s 269.4 and 162.8, Falmouth’s 170 and 75, Barnstable’s 108.7 and 241.6, and Dennis-Yarmouth’s 99 and 423.9.

Faced with decreasing enrollment, due in large part to a region-wide decline in school-aged children but also to challenges from new public charter schools, Nauset welcomed choice students from other communities to its middle and high schools. At the same time, the system leveraged the increasing numbers to broaden its offerings, adding Advanced Placement courses and eventually an optional International Baccalaureate program. The school’s arts and crafts offerings are wide-ranging and attractive to all varieties of students.

That level of enrollment “allows you enough people and classes such that you can provide a rich arts and sciences program for students,” regional school committee chair Chris Easley told the Brewster Select Board Jan. 25. “It’s one of the main attractions. It’s one reason the school is rated 24th in the state, and (remember that) Massachusetts is number one in the country for education.”

Bob Renn of the Orleans Finance Committee drew other information from the 2020 US News & World Report high school rankings to which Easley referred. In a report to his board, he noted that only two of the other 24 top schools participate in school choice, and at much lower levels. He observed also that 19 of the schools had lower costs per pupil than Nauset’s $20,710.

At the Brewster meeting, Easley said school choice has been “villainized. You have a kid pay $5,000, therefore it’s costing us $15,000. That’s not actual. We all see buses driving around. The expense is the same if one seat or 10 seats are filled. We’ve got the same building, we’ve got to heat it, pay teachers.”

Brewster Select Board member Cindy Bingham, a teacher for 36 years, said she understood school choice as a way to fill empty seats in a classroom. “I don’t think school choice was ever intended to have 200 students come to your school,” she said.

“We have a regional school committee and superintendent who have told us time and again that school choice is integral to the breadth of programming and therefore the success of the region,” her colleague Ben deRuyter said. “What happens if we can’t attract young families with students to the Nauset district? If it’s the school system that is attracting those groups of folks, we need to do everything in our power to continue to make sure it’s the success it’s proven it can be.”

“Ben, I agree with you,” Bingham said. “We do want to attract everyone, but we also have taxpayers in town. We have 33 percent of the population at Nauset High School and will be asked to pay 48.5 percent of the building cost.”

“I’m saying that the differential is an investment in our community,” said DeRuyter. “I’m not saying what’s right or wrong. That’s a choice voters get to make when they go to the polls.”